Guangdong Province on the border with Hong Kong, 163km (102 miles) SE of Guangzhou
In the 1980s, Shenzhen grew seemingly overnight from nothing to a metropolis. The growth spurt came at the instigation of then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, and remains the primary symbol of the reform and opening policy he initiated. It's equally a symbol of everything that's wrong with what China has become -- a jostle of shanty-towers with a rootless, money-grubbing, gone-in-a-day atmosphere. Hardly anyone's a native, and many Chinese are here illegally. Far from finding the get-rich-quick scheme of their dreams, often many of these workers end up in sweatshops or prostitution. Seemingly oblivious to the city's terrifying growth in violent crime, the authorities seem to believe that even more expansion will cure all ills. To this end, Shenzhen is trying to remake itself, attempting to disassociate itself from the fake handbag shops that line the border and focusing instead on a spanking new Central Business District in Futian.
If you're in Hong Kong and are considering Shenzhen as a side trip, then be aware that shopping is the main activity. Otherwise, the main point of visiting here is to use its airport to get somewhere else. Warning: Although Hong Kong has "returned to the motherland," this is a full-scale international border crossing, open from 6:30am to midnight, and is prohibited even to Chinese who don't have the right documentation. Lines can be long, especially during holiday periods. In either direction, allow at least an hour, and whether you're coming or going, be sure to collect immigration cards and fill them in while waiting in line. There are lines for Hong Kong residents, mainland Chinese, and foreigners -- you'll be sent to the back again if you join the wrong one. Full Chinese tourist visas cannot be obtained here. A 5-day permit allowing access only to Shenzhen can be purchased at the border by citizens of most developed nations for ¥100, but the list of favored nations changes as high-level diplomatic spats eventually filter down to the ordinary traveler. Last year it was the British who were out of favor; this year it is the Americans who are in the doghouse.